The past year has fairly tumultuous for John Clark, the executive director of the Jacksonville Airport Authority. From the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to personnel issues to a less than favorable audit of his travel habits, the airport and Clark have been under intense scrutiny. Daily Record staff writer Mike Sharkey met recently with Clark and talked about the past, present and future of JIA and his tenure.
Question: How is everything going these days at the airport?
Answer: Things are going pretty well. Considering the year we have just gone through, I would say it’s going pretty well. We have our security program going the direction we wanted it to go in. Business is recovering, slowly, but it is recovering. We are continuing to make the transition to the Jacksonville Airport Authority. It’s been a very busy year, but in spite of all of our challenges, I would say things are going very well for us.
Q: Are you surprised JIA is recovering so well?
A: I’m not surprised. I’m going to say the reason we are doing as well as we are is because we took some very quick and aggressive actions right after Sept. 11. The beauty of having an independent board at this point shows that a single focus is best. We had a board that voted on a policy to make sure we had the most safe and secure airport environment we could possibly have. Based on that, we were able to put into place programs that have actually put our airport system far in front of the other airport systems in the country. I’m very pleased with that and from a security standpoint, I’m not surprised. The other aspect — in terms of business returning — we are a medium-sized airport. We’re not a large airport like Atlanta or Miami, but we’re not a small airport, either. It seems that the medium-sized airports are actually faring better in the recovery from a systems standpoint. The other piece of it is, we are a predominantly business-based airport, at least JIA is. From that standpoint, we’re not recovering as fast. We’re off, on average, about eight percent. The national recovery rate is somewhere around 10 percent. We are doing better than the national average.
Q: What’s been your role in rebuilding that business?
A: My role specifically is that we are staying in front of the airlines to get new service and service to return. We are putting in place what I believe are some good management programs so that we become more efficient and drive our cost of doing business down. That has always been one of our goals, but the challenge was after Sept. 11 we were charged with putting in a security program which cost millions, which was not anticipated prior to that point [Sept. 11]. It is a declining business environment from a revenue standpoint and the opportunity for costs to go up has been quite considerable. I think we’ve done very well in managing our costs. I think we’ve done very well in putting in a capital program that not only meets our needs today, but positions us for the future. Case in point: we decided to go with an in-line baggage system for security purposes. As a result of that decision, we are now the model for airports in the United States.
Q: Do you have any trepidations getting on a plane whether it’s a domestic or international flight? Do you look around before you get on a plane?
A: I do, but I’ve always done that. I think the fundamental difference is everyone now is looking around and if they see something suspicious, it’s better to go ahead and notify the law enforcement folks or let the airlines know and not take the chance. I think we have probably always seen things, but just figured there was nothing to it. The difference today is people are aware of their environment and I think that will be the case forever more. We take nothing for granted here [at JIA]. If someone sees something or suspects something, we will take action on it. It’s better to make the mistake and say, ‘I’m sorry to inconvenience you.’
Q: You have traveled a lot and taken some heat for that travel. What do you say to someone who accuses you of traveling too much?
A: I travel because I am in the travel business. My charge in this community, I believe, is to provide an airport system that links them to the world. It is a small world now because of air travel. It is my job to ensure that Jacksonville is continually positioned so that commerce can move in and out of the community by air. I would be ineffective, in my opinion, if I stayed in Jacksonville and tried to make that happen. Secondly, I sit on a board — Airport Council International — which is made up of airports all over the world and the purpose of that organization is to continuously look at aviation as a global industry and make sure we are going in the right direction. I think traveling is a part of my responsibilities.
Q: Has your board ever come to you and said, ‘John, we’d like you to cut back on the travel?’
A: My board has never said that. In fact, my board has said just the opposite. I need to do what is in the best interest of the Authority and we are encouraged to make sure we are looking at the future of our airport system. Just by nature of what our business is — our business is air travel and to facilitate air travel for this community. It would be nice if we could make those deals and those transactions all happen in Jacksonville, but the reality of it is there’s a whole big world out there and it is our job to make sure we provide a vehicle to do business with the world. It’s specifically the airport, but making the conduits so that the business in Jacksonville and outside Jacksonville have the opportunity for easy access to and from the community.
Q: Does that make you an ambassador as much as you are executive director of JAA?
A: In many respects, yes, because we have opportunities to communicate with companies that are looking to come into Jacksonville and one of the key components is: How do I get in and out of Jacksonville? And, air is the key ingredient there. In many respects, we are ambassadors for Jacksonville.
Q: What do you hear out there about Jacksonville?
A: That it is an up and coming city, that there is a lot of promise in this community. The challenge is air service into the community and why can’t we have non-stop service into Europe. We are constantly trying to explore how we can make that happen. Right now we really don’t have the market mass, but you have to set the foundation. Those things don’t just happen.
Q: When will we have non-stop service to Europe?
A: We’re a ways away. Our largest single international market is Canada, specifically Toronto, and we’ve tried several times to establish service and we have not been able to maintain that. The challenge is while there are a number of people that travel to that market on an annual basis, it’s just not sustainable at this point. The more companies that come to Jacksonville, the more opportunities we’ll have.
Q: You’ve mentioned that your board is very supportive of you. There’s also been a lot written about things you’ve done for the board, specifically retreats in which a lot of money was spent. How do you defend that?
A: My charge as I saw it at that particular time was, I had a brand new board and a brand new organization. I needed to get those seven board members, who enact policy for the Authority, to understand this new environment. It was a two-fold challenge. One, we had a total change in our platform of security and, secondly, we were birthing a new organization — seven new people in a policy capacity. I needed to find a way to make sure they had a fundamental knowledge base of the industry so that, in effect, they could render policy that was taking the organization in the direction it needed to go. All I could ask was: how can I get these folks for two days with their undivided attention on our issues? I brought in people from all over the country so that they could get a global perspective, a national perspective, a state perspective and a local perspective. We brought in representation from airlines, airports, industry professionals and we spent two days discussing this whole agenda of issues so that moving beyond that point they had at least a base of understanding of what this industry is all about. We chose to go out of town because, in my opinion, that was the best way to keep the focus. When we have had workshops here, the challenge for me is: these are all very busy people and it’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to run to the office for 20 minutes. I’ll be back and catch up.’ This [Amelia Island] was just far enough away that it challenged that and so we kept their attention and focus for two days. That is where I was going with it. If I had it to do again, I would do it again. It was a very productive two days.
Q: Would you do it again because you need to or have you accomplished what you needed to with the new board?
A: At that time, we needed to get those folks out of that environment and get their focus. Following up on it, what we’ve determined is that periodically we need to have focus time. How we will accomplish that moving forward is to take a board meeting and extend that time and there will be single issues addressed in a workshop forum. In that particular forum, we addressed a multitude of issues. Now that they have that as a base, we have said, for example, we will workshop on Super Bowl issues. We will workshop on security initiatives. We can take it initiative by initiative and it doesn’t take the same amount of time. To say that we will never take the position that we need to sequester ourselves and go away again, I’m not going to say that because there may come a time when we need to do that.
Q: Would you run that option by your board?
A: Absolutely. I had to run it by the board the first time. I clearly am not going to set up a workshop and not have the participation of the board.
Q: So you took a lot of heat for a decision that you didn’t solely make. None of your board members were ever held accountable.
A: In the position I sit, I ultimately do take responsibility. And, I would take it again.
Q: A recent Council audit is less than glowing. Did you expect that and what are doing to assure the next audit is better?
A: What we’ve done is we’ve taken the audit as an opportunity to fix some things. We’ve taken some corrective action. Like any company, audits are a necessary thing and the pure purpose of them is to help your company and that’s the way we look at them. It was challenged because early in the process, and from my standpoint, I believe there were some issues, that was a compromise in the process. We have an external audit process going on now. We will continue with internal audit processes. That’s how we grow the business. We need to know where we are not following our own procedures and how we can do things better.
Q: Did the audit results surprise you?
A: It really didn’t surprise me and I’ll tell you why. If you can appreciate the fact that we were the Jacksonville Port Authority, the administrative functions, the financial areas, were not under my control. What was determined in the audit was we had a component of finance and a component of business development and the processes didn’t allow communications to occur. We have fixed that. It’s actually something we’ve known all along, but we didn’t have the opportunity to fix it. We now have every opportunity to fix it and we are fixing it.
Q: The last year has been interesting to say the least for you. Has the criticism affected you personally?
A: To say that I wasn’t bothered would be untruthful. Yes, I was bothered. I was bothered because it seemed that there was a lot of focus on some missteps rather than looking at things with a holistic viewpoint and what we have been able to accomplish. There is no other entity in this community that has been more directly impacted as a result of Sept. 11 than this airport environment. And, if you think about, we were a brand new organization and at the same time we were faced with the humongous charge of trying to put a security program in place so we wouldn’t shut the airport down. I don’t think there’s another airport in the country that had to deal with what we had to deal with and I say that because we were a new organization trying to build and at the same time trying to deal with security. The timing was absolutely terrible. A lot things we had established in our transition plan we had to put on hold in terms of building the organization and putting the processes in place that make us more efficient. We had to take time out on that and we had to freeze some critical positions so that financially we could make it through this first year because business fell off and operating costs went up because of security. In light of that, I think we have done a tremendous job and there didn’t seem to be any recognition of that. While we have been applauded on a national basis, it seemed like we were [locally] getting hit for some things. I would have to say if you went into any organization with a life beyond a year, you could find those same problems.
Q: Do you take any solace or satisfaction that what’s being written or said isn’t what is going on at JIA?
A: I think we are doing a great job. We have a great group of people that work in this organization and they are striving to be the best airport system that we could possibly be. We had a luncheon yesterday [Wednesday] to celebrate our first year of operation and there was so much camaraderie. That’s the stuff that doesn’t seem to get out. We didn’t take notes for 30 minutes at an executive session of a board meeting. It wasn’t intentional. It was a noticed meeting and members of the media were in the meeting. Is it fair criticism? Absolutely, because we should have been taking notes. But to make that such an issue, I was bothered by it.
Q: There is supposed to be a big expose coming out soon in a local paper about the parking situation at the airport. Specifically, the story will focus on who has free parking permits and how they are used. What are your thoughts on that story and should it be a big deal?
A: I don’t think it is a big deal. We have extended parking privileges to those folks that are elected, to those folks that are going out to represent this community’s interests. We have extended it to members of the media. It’s a convenience. We don’t lose money. It doesn’t cost us money to do it. We think it is a way to benefit the community. I’m not sure why it’s such an issue. It’s not a practice that is uncommon in the industry. I think if you called any airport in this country, you would find they have a very similar program. Early on, when we became the Jacksonville Airport Authority, I directed that we begin to pull those passes so we could establish a more accurate accounting of who had them and where they were. We put that in place. It’s something that has been with the Jacksonville Port Authority probably since its inception and there are probably people out there who have parking passes and haven’t used them in years. If they came today, they would get the complimentary parking and we would ask that they surrender their cards at that point because we want to purge the list. I’m sure there will be a story about it. How relevant it is I don’t know. It was brought up at the last board meeting for a brief discussion and the board’s position was that it was a management decision and if it was viewed that it was in the best interest of the Authority in promoting business, then it was something that should continue.
Q: How did you get
A: Just a love for the business. I grew up in an airport environment and wasn’t sure as a child what I wanted to be. I didn’t know about airport management, I just hung around the San Francisco airport as a child and it’s something that gets in your blood. I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do since I was a child and not too many people can say that. I am blessed in that sense.
Q: Are you a licensed pilot?
A: I am not. I had attempted to at one time. I owned an airplane for a while and was taking lessons, but I never would afford myself the time to complete it [certification]. I have enough hours so that if I was in a small airplane and the pilot had some problems, I could get it on the ground. It might not be a smooth landing, but I could get it down. My son has been flying since he was nine years old and his life ambition is to be a pilot. I think he will definitely become a pilot.
Q: What brought you to Jacksonville and do you like it here?
A: I was recruited to do this job in 1995. What’s funny is when I came here, I thought I would be here for about three years because typically I’ve gone from airport to airport and I’ve stayed about three to four years. I’ve been recruited at every job I’ve had. I thought this would be the same thing — come here and do the job for a while and move on to the next airport. Since I’ve been, have I been recruited to go other places? Absolutely, to some of the largest airports in this country. But I’m here because I truly choose to be in Jacksonville. Like any other community, Jacksonville has its challenges. But in terms of raising a family, this is where I want to be.
Q: How will you get ready for the crowd that will accompany Super Bowl?
A: The beauty is we have Cecil Field. And while we are the smallest community to host the game, we have a nice inventory of airports. My belief is that the first preference for a lot of the corporate jets will be JIA, but we don’t have a lot of room to accommodate that. So, it’s a first come, first serve. The real jewel in this system is Cecil Field and we will definitely be able to accommodate it [the game]. We’re going to set up a reservation system and the big issue is not planes coming in. The big issue is after the Super Bowl ends is logistically getting those people out of Jacksonville. That is our big challenge.
Q: What do you do to get away from everything?
A: My recreation is my family, my kids. I try not to have weekends away and even if that means I have to do a red-eye or shorten my travels, I will do that. That’s where I spend my time, with my wife and kids.